The Watsu Way

Healing Opportunities Through Water and Connection

By Harold Dull

In 1980, at Harbin Hot Springs in Northern California, I floated someone in a warm pool and applied the stretches and principles of the land-based Zen shiatsu I had learned years earlier with its creator, Shizuto Masunaga, in Japan. I had no idea that what was coming into being that night would help millions of people of all ages in spas, clinics, and backyard pools around the world, and would become a new way to bring people together to come to know and celebrate their connection.

The Stretch

In Zen shiatsu, Masunaga teaches that stretches are an older way to access and balance the flow of energy through our bodies than shiatsu’s traditional work with acupuncture points. Stretching increases flexibility, and warm water—which many associate with the body’s deepest states of waking relaxation—is the ideal medium for it. The support of water takes weight off the vertebrae and allows the spine to be moved in ways impossible on land. Gentle, gradual twists and pulls relieve the pressure a rigid spine places on nerves and helps undo any dysfunction this pressure can cause to the organs served by those nerves.
In Watsu, the receiver experiences greater flexibility and freedom, while a range of emotions can come forward and be released into the process of continuous flow. For both giver and receiver, this work in the water helps us face life out of the water with greater equanimity and flexibility.

The Breath

In the beginning, Watsu was all about stretching—using our physical closeness to brace powerful stretches and be moved around the pool by the energy those stretches released. Stretches, and the closeness that facilitates them, will always be important in Watsu, but in its first years of development, another element moved to the forefront—the unique connection to the breath that our closeness in water also facilitates.
In water, where the buoyancy lifts our body every time we breathe, our whole body breathes. We begin a Watsu session doing nothing, settling into the water, holding someone, one arm under their head, the other arm under their body. When we feel them getting lighter on that arm as they breathe, our own breath is drawn up. Then we drop back into the emptiness at the bottom of the breath and do nothing. Being drawn up out of that emptiness again and again, up through our core in this waterbreath dance, engages our whole body and establishes a connection that continues through our moves and stretches born in that rhythm, even if the one in our arms is no longer breathing to it.
This, and the way our whole bodies are contained in warm water, help establish Watsu as a form of bodywork that addresses the entire body—for both giver and receiver. We don’t engage single parts of the body but address them rhythmically as a whole, largely as a result of the closeness of the work.
That closeness, developed out of necessity when Watsu first came into being because no flotation devices had yet been developed to keep clients fully above water, is still an essential part of the work. Even with the advent of various float devices we use with Watsu today, it’s the closeness between giver and receiver that distinguishes Watsu from subsequent forms of aquatic bodywork where practitioners float clients at a distance.
Being held accesses an innate level of healing. When infants fall, a mother’s response is to pick them up and hold them. Containment creates safety. It allows us to go deeper within and access every level of our being. It is a cornerstone of Watsu.

The Union

As a young poet in love with the uniqueness of each individual and event, I scorned the idea of everything being one as I developed the work. But when I started applying Zen shiatsu’s principle of “being, not doing” to Watsu and its aspect of unconditionally holding others, I was surprised by how much oneness I felt with each person floating at my heart level, even those I would never have imagined being one with. I saw Watsu as healing our wounds of separation, and as being a rebonding therapy. Thousands of Watsus later, I am no longer surprised by the union that takes place. Watsu frees us from the illusion of separation. Watsu reconnects us. Watsu celebrates union.

The Outcome

Ultimately, Watsu is about adaptation. Sharing Watsu with someone means respecting their limits and adapting to whatever is called for. Over the years, the Watsu community created “a form” or sequence that provides the greatest number of benefits to the client in a single session. One overriding benefit is the form itself—its dancelike flow seamlessly carries someone through both powerful moves and stretches, and moments of profound stillness. All Watsu practitioners learn this form and how to adapt its flow to each client they take in their arms. They also learn to listen for and follow whatever movement originates from the one in their arms, as well as for whatever movement is called up in their own body. Watsu allows for the form to evolve and adapt each session, as creativity and authentic movement come into play.
Watsu’s unique power to reduce stress has made it a treatment of choice in spas around the world. Many come out of a session saying it is the most relaxed they have ever been in their lives, including those whose straight-leggedness during the Watsu treatment looked anything but relaxed. Watsu can provide relief from almost any condition related to stress—physical or mental. And the anecdotal and research-based evidence surrounding the efficacy of Watsu continues to grow:
• Kathy Bateman, who managed the pool at the Children’s Hospital in Seattle, says she has seen Watsu benefit children who are paralyzed, stroke patients, those with cerebral palsy, and terminally ill patients.
• Practitioners around the world find that Watsu benefits pregnant women. Throughout the pregnancy, Watsu can help bond mother and child even before the birth, as the water creates a shared energy. From a physiological perspective, Watsu soothes muscles that are challenged with pregnancy’s rapid weight gain. Some practitioners claim that their clients’ babies turned out of breech position in the nights and days following Watsu.
• Tomasz Zagorski, a sports therapist and Watsu instructor who has successfully brought aquatic bodywork into the programs of sports teams and Olympic medal winners, says Watsu for athletes has become a new field of application. Watsu’s ability to accelerate the body’s regeneration process makes it a valuable tool in the athlete’s recovery after intense competition and training sessions. Besides increasing joints’ range of motion, Watsu provides an opportunity to stretch muscles in combinations of directions and planes unworkable on land. We can work on joints using mobilizations, roll and glide moves, tractions, and compressions.
• Additional studies include Watsu’s benefits for fibromyalgia, chronic back pain, and trauma, as well as helping veterans with PTSD.1 Many more studies are in process, including Watsu’s help in overcoming problems with infertility.

The Evolution

The beauty of Watsu is that it continues to evolve. From water to land, from couples to communities, Watsu adapts and grows in its ability to connect.

Tantsu and Tantsuyoga

In Watsu’s first year, I developed Tantsu to bring the unconditional holding of someone’s whole body with our whole body back onto land. Now, there is a simpler form to bring that holding to everyone. While teaching it in India, I was told that yoga means union. I call this work Tantsuyoga: a celebration of union. I post directions at for anyone, anywhere, to share the work in groups of three.

Tandem Watsu

Once Watsu (and our training of practitioners and instructors on what I call the vertical path) was established, I turned my attention to Watsu’s horizontal path, something I wanted to do ever since I saw, and experienced, how much personal growth there is in Watsu for the holder as well as the held. I have often felt or seen the gentle vibration of a body wave start in my hara (abdomen) or in the hara of the one in my arms during a Watsu, sometimes both, simultaneously. I feel it is not a release, but something that is always there, the base of our being. Once our program of Watsu 1–3 was fully in place, I developed Watsu 4 with the intent of helping others access their own body wave. Many did, but because some didn’t, and because Watsu shouldn’t have a goal, I eliminated the Wave as an intention, and instead focused on Tandem Watsu, where two givers address one receiver.  
Being Watsued from both sides of the body more fully engages the receiver. There is greater containment, and having a third person to brace with, the stretches are stronger. Instead of drawing us around the pool with its power, the energy the group accesses is contained and circulates within to wherever it is needed. Often it rises up the spine at the end of the session. Many find this to be the most powerful form of Watsu.

Explorer Path

For Watsuers eager to explore further, I built on the power of three that Tandem Watsu uncovers and developed the Explorer Path. This is where teams of three meet and creatively explore what can be done in Watsu. Each team is composed of participants from any level: student, practitioner, or instructor. The ease and joy with which they all work together gives testimony to Watsu’s power to create connection.

The Future

Alongside the personal growth I have seen and experienced in Watsu, I have also seen the connection grow between those who come from a wide range of backgrounds to our classes, something much needed in our time. The more time people spend on the internet maintaining their friendships and seeking the like-minded, the more physical isolation they suffer.
In 2015, when fire took out Harbin Hot Springs, my wife and I moved from our home there to Berkeley where, pools being limited, I developed the Watsu Round, which can be offered in a pool of any size. Participants take turns in its three roles: holder, held, and helper. With the helper’s oversight, the holder can explore how deep they can connect with their eyes closed. The Watsu Round’s 3–4 hours in a pool give a rich and complete experience of Watsu in all its roles and allows for more people to share the healing space.
We are seeking help to set up a program big enough to reach those who would benefit from the way the Watsu Round can bring people together. I encourage Watsu practitioners to learn and offer the Watsu Round and help us bring its celebration of connection to a world where it is much needed.
The boundlessness felt in warm water is the sheath of prana, the warmth within, becoming one with the warmth of the water. During Watsu, when our minds’ chatter becomes most stilled, the more spontaneous and intuitive our moves become, the more they are coming out of our bodies’ innate wisdom, and the deeper we move into rapture.
It is said that once an opening is made to the rapture, once we know how to access it, we will be able to see it underlying even the greatest of our sorrows. I can imagine no better goal for Watsu than to help people realize a level of consciousness from which they can face anything—a level as boundless as water.

Connecting a World

In South Africa, I teach as many as 11 different courses each year, and whether they are specifically Watsu courses or not, I always include at least a solid introduction to Clinical Watsu.
One of the most special courses in South Africa was a six-day course that included four men from India and Qatar. It was fascinating teaching an up close and personal course in the pool with six South African white females who were Christians and Jews, along with four Muslim and Hindu black males.   
The first day, there was a vast chasm separating everyone. Everyone was polite, but uncomfortable, and the men and women stayed completely separate. I strived to create a safe, supportive, and accepting environment for all. There was progress by the end of the first day, yet I wondered how the group dynamics would evolve during the week.
The next morning, I said to the group that I wished to greet everyone individually, and I wanted each person to say whether they wanted a hug, a handshake, or simply a warm “good morning.” Most wanted hugs and two requested handshakes. 
The last person was a woman who looked down at the floor and quietly said she wanted a “good morning.” I gave her a warm “good morning,” and said how glad I was that she asked for what she wanted. Her eyes flooded with tears. She said how difficult it is for her to ask for what she wants because she always feels misunderstood and not heard. I commented on the courage it took to ask for the “good morning” she wanted, instead of the handshake or hug she felt might gain more approval.
Then I asked the group if anyone had ever had an experience of feeling deeply misunderstood or unheard. Everyone shared very personal and painful experiences while the group listened with respect, support, and profound empathy. Superficial differences vanished, and everyone connected through their presence, vulnerability, acceptance, and trust—the essence of Watsu. By the end of the week, they were all hugging and inviting each other to India, Qatar, and various places around South Africa. Amazing!
On the last day, I kept smiling as I looked around the pool at all of them happily sharing very tender Watsu sessions with each other. I thought, “Come on world! We can do this!” It was an exceptional experience for all of us.
—Peggy Schoedinger, PT, Senior Watsu instructor and student of Harold Dull

Watsu Training

Before attending a Watsu class, make sure the instructor and the class are listed on the Worldwide Aquatic Bodywork Association (WABA) Registry at Only classes listed there can be applied to practitioner authorizations. The registry has helped hold our water family together.
Three 50-hour classes make up the core of the Watsu program around the world:
• Watsu 1 introduces the Basic Watsu moves and the Transition Flow that can be attended as separate classes.
• Watsu 2 expands what can be done in the Transition Flow.
• Watsu 3 introduces Advanced Moves
and Free Flow.
The WABA Board of Directors has authorized trained Watsu practitioners to share the Watsu Round paradigm in a four-hour course with the public as another way to draw more people to the work.
To view the full programs and the schedule of classes, go to


1. K. Faull, “A Pilot Study of the Comparative Effectiveness of Two Water-Based Treatments for Fibromyalgia Syndrome: Watsu and Aix Massage,” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies 9, no. 3 (2005): 202–210. doi: 10.1016/j.jbmt.2004.12.001; S. J. Smeeding et al., “Outcome Evaluation of the Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City Integrative Health Clinic for Chronic Pain and Stress-Related Depression, Anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 16, no. 8 (2010): 823–835. doi: 10.1089/acm.2009.0510.

In 1980, Harold Dull started creating and teaching Watsu in the warm pool at Harbin Hot Springs. Today, there are 100 Watsu instructors around the world teaching the work that he and the water community developed. He serves on the Board of the Worldwide Aquatic Bodywork Association and maintains its registry at In an effort to touch more people, Dull developed the Watsu Round where even more people can participate in smaller pools, and he is encouraging Watsu Practitioners to add this to their offerings. His hope is that others will recognize the potential in offering this healing paradigm in a community setting. For more information, visit